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Profiles in Freedom: Saeed Ghasseminejad

Article by The Freedom Collection July 9, 2013 //   5 minute read

This post originally appeared on freedomcollection.orgThe Freedom Collection blog will periodically feature a profile of an advocate who we believe deserves greater attention. For this first Profile in Freedom, we have decided to highlight an activist who is working to bring democratic change to Iran. 

by Jordan Chandler Hirsch

As Saeed Ghasseminejad stopped his car near the University of Tehran, three men approached waving their hands furiously. They must be fellow students, he thought, desperate to flee Iranian security forces stamping out a student protest against the regime in June 2003. As soon as he unlocked his doors, a gun was pressed to his head. “Drive!” Saeed’s captors soon shoved him in the back and sped to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. There, joined by thousands of students similarly rounded up, he spent a month in solitary confinement. “I developed a reputation among the jailors,” he told me. “They came to see the guy that the Revolutionary Guards took to jail in his own car!”

What landed him in Evin was his reputation for championing liberal ideas. Raised in a middle class family, Saeed sensed the oppression around him but could not identify its source. But once accepted into an honors program, he encountered Western classics—in particular Karl Popper—that helped him see the rot. Reading The Open Society and its Enemies, he said, “brought the first gust of spring after a long winter. I realized I was living in a society governed by enemies of free expression.” Hungry for more, Saeed consumed the likes of Locke and Solzhenitsyn, sharing their ideas in the opinion pages of student magazines. Iranian officials sentenced him to two years in jail with a five-year deferral, hoping that the threat of imprisonment would silence him. “It’s an effective way of shutting down dissidents,” he said, a dictator’s Sword of Damocles.

But Saeed continued to take risks. A year later, he helped found the Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates, a group dedicated to bringing the formative works of Saeed’s youth to Iranian students everywhere. Members compiled notes on writers such as John Locke and von Mises into a short hand of liberal thought distributed as booklets on college campuses. “Through these books we were showing why free speech is good, discussing the relationship between economic and political development, introducing into the conversation what it means to be a liberal,” Saeed told me. The notes caught on and ILSG gained tens of thousands of followers—today, one of its Facebook campaigns has over 44,000 subscribers.

But the regime’s decimation of the Green Movement in 2009 also crushed ILSG’s momentum. Saeed, who came to the United States in 2008 for graduate studies, directed the group to hunker down by remaining in contact with supporters and promoting low-key initiatives, such as good governance. While not optimistic, he hopes that Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential elections this month will create space for ILSG to operate. “There won’t be a fundamental change,” he said, “but we’ll look to take advantage of whatever openness it brings.” If Rouhani eases repression even slightly, ILSG will seek out new followers and print booklets again to attract new followers.

Saeed believes this combination of outside pressure and internal revolution is the best formula for bringing down the regime and creating a more democratic system. Iranian liberals crave the support of Western nations and the models they have to offer. The books are a start. “I don’t think reading Mill will lead to political change—that comes from political activities,” he told me. “But it can get people interested and give them a basic vocabulary to unite behind.” The next time liberal-minded Iranians rise against the regime, he said, “the world will need to choose between the government and the people.” Depending on that choice, Saeed may be able to fulfill his dream of being driven around Tehran once again—not as a prisoner, but an elected official.

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a special contributor to Freedom Collection blog. Formerly a Staff Editor at Foreign Affairs, he has published opinion pieces in numerous national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He is currently a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School.